The ongoing coronavirus crisis has serious implications for the economy and the environment. The period following will be decisive for tackling the ongoing climate and environmental crises.
A recent systematic review conducted by University of Leeds and five other international universities, offers important propositions for post-coronavirus economy packages.
In two articles, published in the journal ‘Environmental Research Letters’, an international group of researchers, including Dr Paul Brockway from the School of Earth and Environment at Leeds, assessed the current scientific status on the connection of economic development, consumption patterns, environmental degradation and the climate crisis.
Can economic development be reconciled with environmental protection and climate mitigation? How far can increasing efficiency and innovation contribute to tackling current problems? How should politics, in the areas of economy, climate and environment, act, in order to reach the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement or the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?
The research conducted by Dr Brockway and colleagues provides answers to these questions.
A systematic review of the scientific literature is presented, synthesising the current state of research and enabling the formulation of guiding principles for politics. The team assessed around 11,000 research articles that investigate the relationships between economic growth, resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.
There is a clear contrast between the anticipated absolute decoupling of economic growth from their impacts and the historical record
The findings of 835 highly-relevant empirical studies on economic growth (GDP) resource consumption (materials and energy) and greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) were summarised. Additionally, the team analysed recommended political strategies presented in the original research articles and arranged them in three groups:
- Green growth, if studies found that a sufficient reduction of resource consumption or GHGs was possible without challenging economic growth.
- Degrowth or post-growth, if the reduction of resource consumption and GHGs was given priority over GDP-growth.
- Other studies, if for instance the effect of energy use on GDP-growth was investigated, without consideration of climate change and sustainability.
Strategies for reaching ambitious climate targets usually rely on the concept of decoupling. Thus, the strategies aim at continued economic growth while simultaneously reducing the consumption of natural resources and the emission of GHGs. GDP-growth that goes along with an absolute reduction of emissions or resource use is referred to as ‘absolute decoupling’. In contrast, for ‘relative decoupling’, emissions and resource use are growing, albeit more slowly than GDP.
The assessment of 835 highly-relevant, empirical studies on decoupling yields the conclusion that ‘relative decoupling’ is often occurring for use of material resources and GHGs emissions, but not so for energy use. Additionally, absolute reductions in resource use and emissions only occur during severe economic crises or in periods of low economic growth.
Furthermore, the study found that resource use and emissions in one country are often times transferred to other countries via international trade. Most often this leads to a shift of environmental pressures from wealthy to less wealthy countries. Long-term ‘absolute decoupling’ is rare.
The presented studies conclude that the required absolute reduction of resource use and emissions cannot be achieved by continuing historical rates of decoupling. For that reason, political strategies must not be reliant on efficiency and innovation to tackle the climate and environmental crisis. In contrast, the strict implementation of goals for absolute reductions of resource use and emissions is required, thereby prioritising health, well-being and climate mitigation over economic growth at all costs.
Only very few historical cases report ‘absolute decoupling’ of GHGs, i.e. a reduction of GHGs emissions with a simultaneously growing economy, and that was only for European countries heavily investing in renewable energies.
Dr Brockway said: “There is a clear contrast between the anticipated absolute decoupling of economic growth from their impacts and the historical record, which shows a much tighter coupling. A new sufficiency-oriented approach is required, which shifts investments from fossil fuels to renewables, and reduces resource use and emissions through measures including rapid, urgent building retrofits and massive expansion of clean public transport.”